This blog is my reflection on regular field visits as part of the urban health action research project that I am currently working on. The field site for the project is a very poor neighbourhood of Bengaluru called K.G.Halli. This neighbourhood has families who earn their living as daily wageworkers to a few upper middle class families.
Let me give a brief overview of the project. It is an action research project which aims to improve access to quality healthcare especially for people with chronic conditions among the urban poor. As a project initiative, we identified three ladies from the same community and trained in providing awareness sessions for chronic conditions. These community health assistants have been working in the neighbourhood since 2009. They go door to door to deliver awareness sessions on diabetes and hypertension, to inform patients what the preventive measures are that the patient and the family can adopt on a daily basis, how diet plays an important role in managing their conditions, and the importance of regular medical check ups. These ladies are an important interface between the community and healthcare providers. Over the years they have become the “go-to” people to seek advice.
Recently I accompanied these ladies for their regular home visits. As they were walking in the lanes, familiar faces greeted them, some asked them to come and join them for a cup of coffee. These were greetings on one end of the spectrum, on the contrary we had to knock on an average of 20- 25 houses and then there would be one patient or a family who would greet us. A few passers by whom we met on the way had curious questionable looks on their faces, and a few even said: “There is no patient in the family.”
Some responses I found were very startling and some of the interesting ones, which did capture my attention, were:
“I already have the disease, how will this awareness bring about a change?”
“ I do not have a ration card, that is more important to me, awareness is not.”
“ Why don’t you give us money?”
“ It is your job as a doctor to find cure and medicines, it is not the responsibility of the patient to make any dietary changes.”
“ Why are you scaring me after me being diagnosed with the disease? I do not need this information.”
“Do you have to meet certain targets? How many houses do you have to visit like these in a day?”
Another experience cited by the health assistants was, “we are educated people, we do not need your information: you would be better off educating the poor people.”
These reactions from the community, which I worked in for almost two years, made me realize that I was wearing blinkers as a young researcher and a medical doctor. It made me realize that the training in research or medical school did not give me any skills to understand these reactions or even think which other strategy I could use to communicate effectively and motivate people.
They sought a completely different path to find out about or understand their disease. Most of the patients that we visited asked us “why aren’t you carrying a glucometer to let me know if my blood sugar levels are under control.” The patients just wanted a figurative number, which is simpler for them to understand and to reassure them that their disease is under control. They would rather not listen to the “science” but to an immediate solution to their problem.
Their voices echoed completely different priorities, such as ration cards, cheaper sources of medicines, or jobs. Another question which came to my mind was whether my chosen strategy of conducting door-to-door awareness sessions was indeed the best strategy for the community or for the researcher?
The comfort of science and research were no longer my allies in solving my dilemma, reiterating the steps to actually listen to the community and understand their priorities better than going with my priorities as a researcher. How can a young researcher like me help them in securing a ration card of any other welfare schemes? Maybe there were unexplored pathways to find a common ground which has a possibility to solve some demands of the community as well as bring in about motivation in the community for adopting a healthier lifestyle.
Mrunalini Gowda is a medical doctor and a public health researcher working as a research officer for the Urban Health Action Research Project at Institute of Public Health, Bengaluru, India.
Competing interests: None declared.